I’d been harboring summer road trip fantasies for years. Nothing crazy, mind you — no cross-country, hit-every-state, live-out-of-an-RV trip for me. Nope, I just wanted to see more of the Golden State, at a leisurely pace. I’d go easy on the packing (shorts, sandals, cute tops — it is summer, after all), pop open the sunroof, and head off down the road, stereo cranked. Maybe drive Highway 1 from Half Moon Bay to Santa Barbara or LA. Or take 101 north through Sonoma county, crossing over to Anderson Valley and ending up in Mendocino. I’d linger in small towns, taste wines in the middle of the afternoon, sample the products of local food makers, and take in the local history. sigh
Just so you know, I didn’t end up taking either of those trips — in part because I’ve done them in the past, and I wanted to go someplace that was new to me. (Although both are on the road trip bucket list for next year.) Instead, I decided to focus on visiting the Central Coast, which has been getting more press for its rising food and wine scene during the past few years. With five days all to myself and Little Cat’s petsitting needs taken care of, I made a plan head south down 101 right after the 4th of July. I’d land in San Luis Obispo for a few days, then head to the coast to finish up the trip before heading home via Highway 1. It was going to be my own personal food tour, with a bit of California history on the side.
The Salad Bowl of the World
The beginning of my trip included short tours through Soledad and Salinas, two cities that are central to California’s agriculture industry. The Salinas Valley is an amazing sight in mid-summer — enough to make you want to pull over from the speedy raceway that is 101 South and just take it all in. Beautiful, bright green fields (despite the drought and daily temps in the high-90’s) full of workers, picking, pulling, and loading. Awe-inspiring, and yet quite humbling when you realize that you’re in the heart of “the Salad Bowl of the World,” an area that produces approximately 80% of the world’s salad greens. Even more so that so much of that hard work is still done manually, in 90-plus-degree temperatures.
Road Food, Day 1
Heading out of Salinas, I was hankering for my first road food snack. It was a little too early in the trip to go right off the rails with heavy, greasy, processed fast food. (And who am I kidding? I don’t eat that way even on a bad day. My idea of comfort food is roasted vegetables and steamed broccoli.) Given my own dietary choices, it gave me the perfect opportunity to think about what’s out there for non-standard, non-meat-based diets. Erm, not much. You need to get creative (and bring your own snacks). Much as I’m a fan of local and family-owned over corporate food choices, Starbucks’ snack boxes came in for the win. Passing by pizza joints and burger spots on my way out of Salinas I popped into Starbucks for a bottle of water and came across their new Omega-3 Bistro Box. While being on-trend, it’s also vegetarian and gluten-free (but not vegan).
Eating My Way Through SLO
I arrived in San Luis Obispo just in time to get check in to my bed and breakfast before heading out to experience the Thursday Night Downtown San Luis Obispo Farmers’ Market. More than a market, it’s a family-friendly evening event with farm-fresh produce, local food stalls (including award-winning barbeque), handmade products, and a variety of entertainment. The market, which runs 6 – 9pm, covers five city blocks of Higuera Street, between Osos and Nipomo.
Much of the produce I saw came from areas around SLO, and far south as Santa Barbara. While it was all beautiful, fresh, and local, I was surprised that there were so few organic vendors at this market. Another surprise? SLO is a meaty town — there’s a real love of barbeque here. That award-winning barbeque stall I mentioned? Locals were already lining up at 5:30, well before the market opened!
Downtown shops, restaurants, and bars along Higuera stay open during the market, which means that you can wander, shop, dine, and cocktail, as well. Or just hang out. The weather was just gorgeous — warm enough for summer clothing without a jacket — and the streets were full of happy people. I wandered, sampled, and chatted with vendors for about an hour, and then headed over to Luna Red to sample a craft cocktail or two and check out their small plate menu.
Seeing Red… Luna Red
Thursday night seems to be THE night to be at Luna Red, a tapas-style restaurant located just a block north of Higuera on Chorro Street. With perfect summer weather and almost two more hours of daylight coming, the outdoor seating area was packed when I arrived at 7pm.
No tiny patio, Luna Red’s outdoor seating area could pass for a small restaurant all on its own. The variety of seating includes high-top and regular tables, a fire pit with “couches,” and outdoor bar. It’s casual and fun, with a relaxed vibe. Inside, the restaurant pairs a contemporary design with a mission-style building that consists of a front room, long (red-lit) bar, and a back room with windows that look over the nearby creek. The interior of the restaurant is quieter, but also darker.
My server, Thomas, was friendly and knowledgeable, answering all of my questions about the cocktail and food menus. The craft cocktail staples, whiskey and gin, figure heavily into the cocktail menu, but there’s a little sumpin’ sumpin’ for every palate. You know I’m a tequila and mezcal kinda girl, so the Smoke and Mirrors (mezcal, benedictine, dry vermouth, grapefruit bitters, rosemary, lemon twist) was just what I needed. The bar gets creative with non-alcoholic drinks, as well, with options like Blackberry Stonefruit (blackberries, stonefruit shrub, lemon juice, soda) and Fig and Thyme (thyme, fig shrub, lime, soda).
The food menu is what I’d call globally inspired, but with a Latin-fusion focus. The restaurant emphasizes supporting local food producers, as well as sustainable farming and fishing techniques. (Note: Dishes reflect the season, so keep that in mind if you visit during the non-summer months. Some of the dishes I’ve mentioned here might not be available.) Luna Red is also very conscious of alternative diets; every dish on the menu has a small abbreviation next to it that indicates whether it’s gluten-free (gf), dairy-free (df), vegan (v), or contains nuts (n).
With five categories — Raw, Small Plates, Paellas, Flatbreads, and Sweets — you’re bound to find a dish or two that calls to you, and everything is meant to be shared. (And GF and DF folks, rejoice! There are approximately a dozen menu items that will suit your diet.) Paellas are the largest dishes and definitely meant to be shared. Even in the Paella category, gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan folks get a vote. Three of the four paellas are GF/DF, and the fourth is vegan.
If you’re choosing amongst Small Plates (the largest menu category), the restaurant suggests 2 – 3 dishes per person and 3 – 5 dishes per couple. The four-top across from me ordered a half dozen dishes to share. Some examples of Luna Red’s small plates: Goat & Berries salad (summer berries, red quinoa tabbouleh, grilled stonefruit, honeyed chevre), Gambas Al Ajillo (sustainable shrimp, paprika olive oil, garlic confit, chili flake, citrus bread), and Pork Short Ribs (honey-chimichurri, garlic green beans).
I was eying the Gambas and a salad, but here’s where my dietary choices went off the rails a bit. I opted for the Pacific Rockfish Ceviche (citrus juice, honey, cilantro, jalapeno) from the Raw section, and while I don’t usually eat meat, the Bacon-Wrapped Dates (stuffed with House-Made Chorizo) were calling to me from the Small Plate section. (Hey, it was a road trip, after all! Why not try something new?) The ceviche was perfect for a warm summer evening: fresh, tangy, and delish. The dates were a bit heavy for the warm weather (for me), although they were a nice balance of sweet, salty, and rich. Still, I enjoyed every bite and decided that dish was a stand-in for dessert.
A satisfying first day of my road trip completed, I headed back to my bed and breakfast for a good night’s sleep so that I would be ready for a full-on food tour of SLO on Day Two.
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